On The Trail with Cooper Nastri
Written by: Lily Weinacht< Back to Articles
With the flick of a wrist and the twirl of an arm, Cooper Nastri has entertained scores of rodeo audiences up and down the East Coast in the last six years. The 17-year-old trick roper, who alternately makes his home in Ballston Spa, New York, and Screven, Georgia, became one of rodeo’s youngest trick ropers in the country when he started performing at 11. Yet he was no stranger to the roping world before that. Cooper had already been competing in rodeos for several years, and is even named after the Super Looper himself, Roy Cooper, but his decision to become an entertainer was a surprise to his parents, Carmine and Sheri Nastri. “Cooper was real shy when he was little, and when he said he wanted to trick rope, I was impressed that he wanted to get in front of an audience and do something like that,” says Carmine. “His work ethic has always been really good, and when he decided he wanted to trick rope, he practiced seven days a week for hours. It turned him right out of his shell, and he’s not very shy anymore.”
Cooper originally wanted to be a rodeo clown and worked with Dusty Barrett as a rodeo clown and helped Hollywood Harris a couple times but he first saw trick roping when Mark Madden came to the Natri’s home and showed him several tricks. He’s also met professional trick ropers including Anthony Lucia, who performed on America’s Got Talent, and Austin Stewart, who also performed on America’s Got Talent, and at Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. “Mark Madden helped me a lot with my trick roping. A lot of people don’t understand that it’s very easy once you figure it out, but it takes a lot of time to learn,” explains Cooper. “I was really impressed by it, and you get paid every rodeo. I try to get one of my family members to video me every time I perform so I can watch and see if there’s anything I need to improve. I watch a lot of horse training videos, too.”
Cooper started by performing at open rodeos, then worked his way up to events like the Painted Pony Rodeo in Lake Luzerne, New York, and Cowtown Rodeo in Pilesgrove, New Jersey, which his grandfather, Dusty Cleveland, has announced for many years. He also performs in Georgia, and was honored to trick rope at AFR 35 and AFR 39. The materials are simple enough – Cooper buys 100 feet of cotton spot cord and cuts it into the four different lengths he performs with. The shortest is 15 feet, and the longest is 50 feet, which he uses to perform a trick called the wedding ring. “The first trick I do is the butterfly, and some high spirals. The big trick I really like is the Texas Skip, which is the hardest trick in the book to do. That’s where the rope is on one side of you, and you jump back and forth through it. I feed off the crowd, so if I can tell the crowd doesn’t like something, I might stick something new in there. Keeping the tricks tuned up is probably the most challenging. I’m pretty busy riding horses every day, so I don’t get to practice as much as I’d like to. Once I get to a rodeo I might practice before the performance. I try to keep the tricks pretty snappy and tuned up.”
This year alone, Cooper will perform in 45 rodeos, many of which are APRA rodeos that he enters in the team roping with his dad or Robbie Erck. Cooper is also practicing his tie-down roping, but prefers to team rope in the USTRC and APRA. He changes footwear – going from sneakers to boots since sneakers allow him to jump higher during his performances – and often heels for his dad. Carmine is a 24-time PRCA First Frontier Circuit Finals Champion, and he’s won the APRA six times between team roping, tie-down roping, and the all-around. He’s competed in the APRA on and off since the 1980s, and his wife, Sheri, is also a First Frontier Circuit Champion in the barrel racing. She team ropes every October at the USTRC Cruel Girl Championships with her partner, Kim Breyo, and has competed in the APRA in the past. “She backs us 100%,” says Carmine. “She drives, rides horses, and helps keep this whole thing afloat. Whether it’s the four of us here or we have ten cowboys staying with us, she keeps everything going.”
Sheri’s grandfather, Harry Cleveland, was the Painted Pony Champion Calf Roper in 1953 when it was part of the Cowboys’ Turtle Association, and he taught many of his generation in the Northeast how to rope. Her dad, Dusty Cleveland, taught her how to rope, and he comes to several Painted Pony Rodeos a year to watch Cooper and his sister, Shelby, compete. Shelby is also an APRA member, competing in breakaway roping and barrel racing, and her senior year of high school, she was the NYSHSRA barrel racing and all-around cowgirl champion. She holds her WPRA card, but primarily competes in the APRA, and her goal is to qualify for the association’s finals in the next few years.
The Nastris put on several roping schools each year with ropers including Speed Williams, Roy Cooper, and Rich Skelton, all friends of Carmine. They also hold weekly roping lessons, and Carmine takes in outside horses to train, along with buying young horses he turns into rope horses. “One of the head horses I made and sold was voted Head Horse of the Bob Feist Invitational this year,” says Carmine. Cooper, who is homeschooled, helps with all of the training and riding, and has become especially passionate about the horsemanship side of roping. “When people come for lessons and have horsemanship questions, Cooper’s a fanatic about it – he’ll spend 15 minutes answering the question.”
Cooper helped finish his own roping horse, Shorty, a bay gelding that stands 14.1 hands high. “He’s a pretty cool little dude. He’s really stout, so I can head on him, heel on him, and rope calves on him,” says Cooper. “He’s got a lot of grit.” Every year since 1987, the Nastris load all of their animals and spend their winters in the southeast corner of Georgia. “We’ve got a pretty good routine, and we know how to get things packed in a hurry and get the trailers organized,” says Carmine. “My mom, Patricia, spends the winter months with us. She’s been a big supporter all my life and pushed us to do whatever our dreams are.
“The nice thing about the summer rodeos up here is that they’re all really close,” Carmine adds. “Painted Pony Ranch does two rodeos a week, and they’re only 27 miles away. My daughter, Shelby, works at a western store in town, and she can come home, practice a little, and go to the rodeo. We live right next to Saratoga, where the big thoroughbred race track is. For Shelby’s birthday, we went to the Saratoga Race Track and took the day off riding and roping.” Sheri adds, “We’re usually all in the arena, but every now and then we take a day off to go to the movies. Our vacation every year is to go to the US Finals, and go to Rich Skelton’s and see Speed Williams.” Cooper plans to continue trick roping, but he has a growing passion for horse training. “One of the biggest things I want to do is go work for a top horse trainer like Bob Avila, Jay Holmes, or other AQHA people,” he finishes. “I’ll still trick rope now and again, but that’s the biggest thing I’m working on.”